Lessons in Life And the German Language

Other than a desire to learn German, the 15 of us gathered in a former orphanage on a chilly day in spring had nothing obvious in common. That much was clear as we went around the room taking baby steps in this unfamiliar tongue. ''Ich komme aus....'' we repeated, adding our country of origin.

There was a South African, a Nigerian, and an Indonesian; students from France, the Czech Republic, and Italy; a Korean, a Colombian, a Thai, and five Brazilians. I was one of two Americans.

We had signed up for 4-1/2 hours a day of language instruction, five days a week for 11 weeks. We were determined to learn German.

Three-quarters of the pupils were women, and all but one or two of us were in Germany because we were married to a German - or at least in love with one. Very romantisch, our teacher commented dryly.

The female students were attractive, and my first impression was that some of these intercultural relationships were probably the result of holiday romances.

Friendships started slowly. We usually had no language in common. Some students spoke English, but for most, pidgin German was the only common tongue.

Cliques developed from the start. Unfortunately, they often had an ethnic hue. I found myself spending most of my time with the Europeans.

The two middle-aged women who traded teaching duties plunged us right away into the famous intricacies of German. We discovered a language where you might plow through three clauses before you unearthed a verb, and where there are five words for ''the.''

We met each new quirk in the language with groans. The Brazilians debated problems in Portuguese, ignoring the teachers' pleas to speak ''nur Deutsch, bitte!'' The Asian students had the hardest time. Less familiar with the Latin alphabet, they lacked the cognates that give speakers of European languages a head start. Our teachers did their best to make the classes interesting, but in the end there was really no way to learn except to memorize. A verb we learned early was wiederholen (to repeat).

About halfway through the class a school administrator asked us to make room for a young woman from Bosnia. She had light brown hair and circles under her eyes. She rarely spoke to the other students and, during breaks, usually stood apart in the shadow of an alcove.

Often the teachers asked us to describe some ordinary aspect of life in our native lands, such as what people eat. The room grew quiet when it was the Bosnian woman's turn. We knew that ordinary life no longer existed there. Once, learning the vocabulary for items of clothing, the teacher asked us to tell what people wear in our Heimatland.

''Uniforms,'' said the woman from Bosnia, with a brittle laugh.

As our German improved we began to learn more about each other. To my surprise, it turned out that many of my classmates had given up good careers in their own countries.

We had among us a dentist, a museum curator, a nurse, a law student, and several teachers. For me, living in Europe was an adventure. For many, it was a sacrifice. Some said that they spent afternoons alone at home, watching television shows they could not understand.

''A person becomes acquainted with solitude,'' said a classmate who had given up a teaching career.

One day the woman from Thailand gave each student a white piece of paper on which a map was drawn. It was an invitation to her wedding dinner a week hence. I felt a little embarrassed. She was a quiet woman who spoke German painfully. I did not feel I knew her well enough to attend such an intimate occasion.

The event took place in a restaurant atop a steep, vineyard-clad mountain a few miles from the city. We arrived at the appointed time and stood in clutches in the parking lot, wondering whether it was time to go inside. The sunset spread an orange light over Stuttgart in the valley below. Inside, we looked around for other guests. There were only a few people sitting at heavy wooden tables. I realized we were the guests.

I had never seen my classmates' spouses before. Their affection for each other surprised me. They sat close together and held hands. Over turkey schnitzel, I chatted with the husband of the Indonesian woman. He spoke of his efforts to learn his wife's language. He recalled with delight their traditional Indonesian wedding.

My stereotypes were falling apart. Instead of the arrogance I had expected, I found that the Germans were trying to break free of cultural chauvinism.

The bride came to sit at our table, her straight black hair done up in elaborate waves. She beamed and gushed gratitude for the serving pitcher the group had given her. The room reverberated with clinking glasses, loud laughter, and overlapping conversations. We spoke in our awkward German, and one husband laughed and said we had invented our own dialect.

The party broke up near midnight. We parted knowing we had crossed some kind of international dateline of intimacy.

When the bride returned to class a few days later, she told us, ''I thought I was alone in Germany.'' She pronounced the German words slowly and carefully. ''Now I know I am not alone.''

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